Friday, March 09, 2007

The Bush Effect: A GOP Presidential Pickle

George W. Bush has really done a number on the early 2008 presidential race for the GOP. And most of the trouble centers on the Iraq War.

Rudy Giuliani seems to have the most steam, at this point, probably because he more than any other GOPer in the country can bring people back to the post-September 11th days when unadulterated resolve and bravado were just what the doctor ordered.

But by heading into Iraq less than two years later -- without much or any consideration for how to get out -- Bush has transformed pure resolve and bravado from useful national security characteristics to perceived national security risks.

For instance, the president's "bring it on" comment brought some scorn in 2003; however, much of the country was still with him on it at the time. But could you imagine the public reaction if he or anyone else uttered those words or anything like them now?

John McCain undoubtedly has been caught with his pants down during this transformation more than any of the other GOP presidential contenders. As Ezra Klein summed it up yesterday:
The tragicomic part, for McCain, is that in 2003, he was the perfect candidate for...2008. But he spent the intervening years sucking up to Bush and cozying up to the establishment and making nice with Jerry Falwell and generally debasing himself to coalesce the Republican Party around him, only to find, for the first time in memory, that that may have been a sucker's game. It's possible that, when all is said and done, not only will he have humiliated himself only to lose, but he'll have lost because he humiliated himself. It's downright Shakespearean.
(Matt Yglesias also offers a good synopsis of McCain's strategic follies here.)

But probably the most interesting aspect in all of this is how the Bush presidency has fundamentally changed what it means to be a conservative, at least for those wishing to take over the reins of the White House in 2008.

A case in point is Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, who -- rumor has it -- is getting set to announce a presidential bid early next week. Hagel is a conservative in the traditional Goldwater sense of the word.

The well-respected National Journal, in fact, recently gave Hagel one of the highest conservative rankings in the US Senate. Hagel's conservativism clearly outpaced McCain's in the rankings, 72 to 56.7, and it even edged out Sam Brownback's score of 70.3 percent. And if Giuliani or Mitt Romney were included in the rankings, I bet Hagel's conservative credentials would put their's to shame, too.

And -- importantly for any national candidate these days -- on the issue of foreign policy, there are few GOPers who are more knowledgeable or respected than Hagel. While Giuliani played a foreign policy guru on TV from his municipal level post after September 11th, Hagel has actually been in a role where foreign policy is one of the explicit job duties.

It's true, of course, that whether someone is actually strong on foreign policy isn't as important as if they appear to be strong on foreign policy, which is why Giuliani's TV image is probably more important than Hagel's actual experience. But it's also true that the conservative media machine is powerful enough to easily make Hagel a household foreign policy name and the darling of "security moms" across the nation if that's what it wanted to do.

But it's clear that's not what the conservative media machine wants to do, and there's one obvious reason for it: Hagel's vocal criticism of the way Bush has handled the Iraq War.

So, essentially, what Bush has done is effectively marginalize the most conservative presidential candidate in the race. And, just to twist the knife a little more, it's happened over an issue that it's blatantly obvious to the vast majority of Americans that Hagel was right about and Bush was wrong about.

If I was a Republican, I'd rank that right up there with runaway spending as the most treasonous acts Bush has committed in regards to conservative doctrine.

But, interestingly, it looks like Hagel may hold the cards necessary to have the last laugh on this one. As Chris Cillizza notes in today's Washington Post, a bipartisan group calling itself "Unity 08" has been working hard to develop the political infrastructure for a viable third party candidate in 2008. If Hagel enters the race and doesn't win the GOP nom, he could become a frontrunner for that third party run.

And unlike Pat Buchanan, who was hardly a blip on the Republican radar in previous presidential races, Hagel has the ability to take a big chunk out of the GOP vote on election day.

UPDATE: The Hill is reporting this morning on another potential wild card in the GOP presidential race. Apparently former Senator Fred Thompson (R-Tennessee) -- most recently of "Law & Order" fame -- is "exploring seriously" a bid for the GOP nomination.

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Blogger Dad29 said...

Brownback occupies the same territory as Hagel (in essence) but gets less derision.

Likely b/c Brownback is not considered to be serious opposition.

But when a real Conservative looks at RudyMittJohn, the gag reflex has to be actively controlled.

March 09, 2007  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

Brownback is more of a social conservative while Hagel is more of a fiscal conservative, although I'm sure they overlap on a number of those issues.

March 09, 2007  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

As I re-read this, it seems you may be saying that Brownback and Hagel occupy the same territory on Iraq. If so, that really isn't the case.

Brownback, while opposed to the current troop build-up, is very much a committed supporter of continuing the war. Hagel, on the other hand, explicitly called for phased troop withdrawal last year. There's a pretty sizable difference there.

March 09, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Patrick Buchanan registered much more than a than a blip, my friend, capturing major national media attention in both 1992 and 1996. Louisiana, Iowa, NH, Houston, TX...check out the history!!

March 09, 2007  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

Buchanan wasn't even on the ballot in '92 and '96. He tossed his support behind the GOP candidate in both years well before election day.

2000 was the first year Buchanan was on the ballot as a third party candidate and he registerd 0.4 percent of the national vote (to compare, Nader got almost seven times as many votes that year). I call that hardly a blip.

March 10, 2007  

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